Avraham, Israel's first prophet.
After witnessing the destruction of S’dom, Avraham moves south. All of the land both to the north and to the south had already been promised to Avraham by God (Gen 13:14-15).
Some have suggested that this is a duplicate of the account of chapter 12, however, the reasoning for this is weak. They say that a man would not make the same mistake twice and therefore this must be a repetition. Additionally they suggest that the writer was an Elohimist (So called E author), of course they have not valid argument for explaining the use of the holy name YHVH in the final verse, other than to propose that this was meant as part of a Yahwehist (So called J author) account redacted at a later date.
The suggestion that a man would not make the same mistake twice is ludicrous and the subsequent multiple author claim is equally untenable. Add to this that Avraham explains clearly in verse 13 that this has been his practice since leaving Ur (light), and we are left with only one plausible conclusion, that this is a unique and separate account from that of chapter 12.
Gen 20:1 And Avraham (Father of many nations) journeyed from there (Mamrei: strength) toward the south country, and dwelt between Kadesh (Holy) and Shur (a wall), and sojourned in Gerar (drag off roughly).
These events must occur soon after the destruction of S’dom because Sarah is clearly still not showing her pregnancy, based on the fact that Avimelech sees her as a potential wife. The place Avraham journeyed from was Mamrei (strength), and he was journeying south, just as he had when he had approached Egypt in chapter 12.
The meanings of the Hebrew names of the towns he settled between, place Avraham (The father of trust) at a crossroads between Holiness (Kadesh) and a wall (Shur: possible blockade). Alternatively he finds himself resting with Holiness (Kadesh) on one side and Protection (Shur: wall) on the other.
The region of Gerar (drag off roughly) is to be understood both literally and as a literary clue to what is about to take place. It is this allusion to a land where people are, “roughly dragged off” that sets the stage for the remainder of the account.
Gen 20:2 And Avraham said of Sarah (Princess) his wife, “She is my sister”: and Avimelech (my father is king) king of Gerar (drag off roughly) sent men and seized Sarah.
The remez (hint) in the preceding verse, seen in the name Gerar (drag off roughly) is immediately enacted by Avimelech. No sooner does he discover that Sarah might be an unmarried woman, does he send men to abduct her. Note that he, “sent” others to take her and that they, “seized” her. The protocol of the time required for permission to be asked of her ruling male relative (Avraham), similar customs developed and were practiced by Jews in the first century CE, where a betrothal agreement was to be entered and a one year period of preparation for the wedding was to be observed. Regardless of the finer details, what is clear is that this was an abduction and not an agreed arrangement. Today we might term this an attempt at sex trafficking. This of course illuminates just how righteous Avimelech really was. That is, nothing more than righteous in his own eyes.
For Avraham’s part, the half-truth that Sarah was his sister was intended from the beginning (v.13) to be a means of protecting their retinue. Part of the reasoning for this is that protocol requires a proposal and marriage fee to be paid to the ruling male member of the bride’s family. Thus Avraham must have presumed that he would have an opportunity to refuse such a proposal on Sarah’s behalf. It is still the practice of many Jewish and Arabic peoples today, for the agreement of the eldest male to not only be sought but also confirmed prior to any betrothal taking place.
Gen 20:3 But Elohim (God, Judge) came to Avimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, “Behold, you are to die, for the woman you have abducted; she is the wife of a husband (Ba’al: master).
God appears to Avimelech as Judge. He makes plan His judgement, “You are to die, for the woman you have abducted…” There are two crimes here: first, the crime of kidnapping and second, the soon to be enacted crime of rape. Make no mistake, even by the standards of the time the kidnapping of an unmarried woman was cause for tribal war. Avimelech is guilty, God does not bring judgement against the innocent.
Gen 20:4 But Avimelech had not come near her: and he said, “Adonai (my lord), the nation that is also just, will You destroy?”
“Had not come near her” is a euphemism for sexual intimacy. The fact that Avimelech had not yet used Sarah for his own sexual pleasure (remember that he already has at least one other wife v.17) does not mean that he didn’t intend to.
Avimelech is obviously aware of the recent destruction of S’dom and Amorah and thus by comparing his own region’s relative morality with that of S’dom’s abominations, defends himself and his kingdom as a just nation. He is clearly afraid that the same destruction that has come upon those cities will also be meted out upon his own kingdom because of God’s relationship to Avraham. We must read Avimelech’s response as his own determination of his moral standing and that of his nation. It is not the verdict of God, the Judge.
Gen 20:5 “Didn’t he say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she, even she herself said, ‘He is my brother’: due to the integrity of my levavi (my inner man, heart) innocent are my palms of having done this.”
Avimelech is not yet guilty of the rape/adultery, however, he is guilty of kidnapping. His protests regarding his heart are exposed by the following statement of God.
Gen 20:6 And Ha-Elohim (the God) said to him in a dream, “Yes, I also know that you did this with an innocent lev (inner man, heart); for I also kept you from sinning against Me: therefore I did not allow you to touch her.”
The so called integrity or innocence of Avimelech’s heart is shown for what it actually is, God prevented him from sexually violating Sarah. Thus Avimelech’s integrity is intact only because God stopped him from violating her.
I read, “Yes, I know all about your innocent heart, I’m the one who kept it innocent, I stopped you from sinning”. In other words, you have no integrity of your own.
Note also that God says, “I also kept you from sinning against me.”Avimelech was about to defile the matriarch of the chosen people Israel. The people Who God had purposed to give birth to the Messiah, the one Who would deliver both Israel and the nations. This is not simply a sin against Avraham but an attempted to disturb the holy lineage of Israel and her Messiah.
If Avimelech was aware of the recent destruction of S’dom and Amorrah and the link to Avraham, then all his actions show contempt for Avraham and his God.
Gen 20:7 “Now therefore return the wife of the man; for he is a prophet, and he will intercede on your behalf, and you will live: and if you don’t return her, know that you will surely die, you, and all that are yours.”
The text infers that Avimelech was already afflicted to some degree and that if he sinned further he and his household would die. God does not punish the innocent, therefore, we must conclude once again that Avimelech is considered to be guilty and is being shown mercy so as not to invite death through an additional act of sin.
God calls Avraham a prophet, in fact Avraham is the first to be called a prophet of God. God has already credited Avraham’s trust as righteousness and considers him a type for the coming Messiah: an intercessor and redeemer of others, a light to the nations.
Gen 20:8 Therefore Avimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told all these things in their ears: and the men were very afraid.
The men were afraid because they knew what had happened to their neighbours in the east. They were right to be afraid. Those who sin against God’s chosen are sinning against God Himself.
Gen 20:9 Then Avimelech called Avraham, and said unto him, “What have you done to us? And how have I offended you that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done deeds to me that ought not to be done.”
These words of Avimelech are the height of hypocrisy. After all, he has abducted a woman against her will without consideration for the stigma attached to the perceived defilement of an unwed woman, and it is he who has disregarded Avraham’s rights as a sojourner and visitor among the people of Gerar. His unrepentant heart is proof that any innocence he might have stumbled across was clearly not of his own making.
Gen 20:10 And Avimelech said unto Avraham, “What did you see, that caused you to do this thing?”
Avimelech hints at what he knows Avraham may have witnessed among the people of Gerar. This appears to be a rhetorical question but it is one that Avraham is able to answer (v.11)
Gen 20:11 And Avraham said, “Because I thought, surely the fear of Elohim (God) is not in this place; and they will slay me because of my wife.”
Avraham saw the way the people of Gerar treated each other and those who sojourned among them, thus he concluded that they had no fear of God. Avimelech’s actions in sending men to abduct Sarah only prove to affirm this fact. Avraham has a convincing argument for the defence of his actions regarding Sarah.
Gen 20:12 “Additionally, she is indeed my sister; she is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.”
Avraham is at best guilty of deceptive speech for the purpose of self-defence.
Gen 20:13 “And it came to pass, when Elohim (God) caused me to wander from my father's house, I said to her, ‘This is the chesed (kindness) which you can accomplish for me; at every place we will come to, say of me, ‘He is my brother.’”
This verse makes clear the fact that this scenario was a well-practised one. We read in the Torah of two specific instances, but there may have been others. The point is, that this is not a duplicate of the events of chapter 12.
Gen 20:14 And Avimelech took sheep, and oxen, and menservants, and women-servants, and gave them to Avraham, and returned to him his wife Sarah.
These are the actions of a guilty and fearful man. This is restitution for the abduction but it is not sufficient payment to clear the good name of Sarah and cover the bride price.
As in the case of the events of chapter 12, Avraham has travelled from Mamrei (strength) and having suffered the trial of having his wife abducted, is now being prospered with the addition of flocks and herds. Thus he has gone from strength to strength in HaShem’s continued purpose for his life and that of his descendants.
Gen 20:15 And Avimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you: dwell wherever you please.”
In fact the land does not belong to Avimelech but has already been promised to Avraham and the children of Israel. Thus Avraham sojourns in yet another part of the fullness of the land that is to be given to his progeny by God.
Gen 20:16 And to Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver: behold, it is to you a covering of the eyes, to all that are with you, and with all others:” thus she was vindicated.
Avimelech remains defiant to some degree, using Avraham and Sarah’s words against them, “I have given your brother…”
The silver is a bride price that seeks to declare Sarah’s purity and provide for the veiled symbol of that purity. This is why the covering is said to show both her and those around her that she has remained sexually pure.
An alternate reading is, “Behold, he is to you a covering of the eyes” meaning that Avraham’s status as a prophet of God protects Sarah.
Some read the latter clause as a rebuke. If that is correct, Avimelech intends insult by proposing the veil and may be inferring prostitution (Genesis 38:15).
Gen 20:17 So Avraham interceded with Ha-Elohim (God): and Elohim (God) healed Avimelech, and his wife, and his maidservants; and they bore children. Gen 20:18 For HaShem (YHVH: Mercy) had sealed shut all the wombs of the house of Avimelech, on the word of Sarah, wife of Avraham.
These last verses show us that Avimelech and his household were already being punished for the sin of abducting Sarah, and this because of Sarah’s cry to God (on the word of Sarah). This is a chilling reminder of the plagues that HaShem sent against Pharoah and his house because of Sarah (12:17). What is clear is that God is the protector of both Avraham and Sarah and that He remains the protector of His servants, both men and women, to this day.
© 2016 Yaakov Brown
Spiritual leader of Beth Melekh Community, Auckland, Aotearoa, N.Z.